Toronto terror arrest highlights radicalization concerns

Mohamed Hersi at a Brampton court on Mar. 30, 2011.

Alex Tavshunsky/National Post

Mohamed Hersi at a Brampton court on Mar. 30, 2011.

Stewart Bell, National Post · Mar. 30, 2011 | Last Updated: Mar. 30, 2011 8:03 PM ET

TORONTO — Mohamed Hersi was waiting to board a flight at Toronto’s Pearson airport on Tuesday night when police moved in, disrupting what they said was his attempt to join a Somali terrorist group.

His flight to Cairo, police said, was only the first leg of a journey to Somalia, where he intended to join Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked armed Islamist extremist group that has been recruiting youths in the West.

The 25-year-old was charged with two terrorism-related offences, including counselling a person to take part in terrorist activity. At a court appearance on Wednesday, he was remanded into custody until Friday.

The arrest was the result of a six-month investigation called Project Severe, which began when his employer, a security firm, grew concerned about his online activities and called police.

The case is considered a success because the government’s Suspicious Incident Reporting System, which encourages key sectors of industry to notify police about odd behavior, worked as intended. But the case also highlights Canada’s ongoing radicalization problem. As they announced the charges, both the RCMP and Toronto police made it clear they considered the spread of al-Qaeda beliefs into Canada a serious concern.

At a news conference, police disclosed little about their case or Mr. Hersi himself except that he was a Canadian citizen, had left his job in preparation for going overseas and that there was never any direct threat to Canada.

An official said Mr. Hersi was not part of any group in Canada but he had known one of the so-called Somali Six, a group of young Somali-Canadians who have not been seen since they left Toronto in 2009 to join Al-Shabab.

The Toronto Police Service began investigating Mr. Hersi after receiving a tip last September. The RCMP’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team in Ontario got involved at a later stage. It was Canada’s first arrest related to Al-Shabab.

“Domestic radicalization associated with al-Qaeda-related extremist ideology remains a particular concern to us and to law enforcement and security agencies in Canada,” RCMP Inspector Keith Finn told reporters.

“We must also focus our efforts on longer term preventive programming that aims to foster individual and community resilience to that dangerous narrative employed by al-Qaeda, Al Shabab and others.”

While Canadian youths have also allegedly traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to participate in terrorism, Al Shabab has been especially effective at recruiting young Canadians over the Internet. Its on-line propaganda mixes religious tracts with rap music, videos and recruiting pitches delivered in English.

“Establishing Allah’s law on land and sea, my number one goal die a shahid [martyr],” a former Toronto resident named Omar Hammami sings in one such video. “You want to promote your religion democracy, along with your cross, temples and your priests, our response is martyrdom or victory.”

Since the Somali Six incident, the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service have made Al-Shabab one of their priorities, partly out of concern that Canadians could return from Somalia with the training and mindset to commit terrorism in Canada.

Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress, said in addition to the six Toronto men, he had also been told that two young Ottawa men had left to join Al-Shabab, as well as two young women.

“There are people in the community who are openly cheerleading for this nonsense,” he said. Young Somalis are becoming radicalized partly on the Internet, he said, but he also pointed to the role played by visiting extremist clerics.

“In the community, there’s a lot of denial,” he said. He agreed with the RCMP inspector’s view that Canada needs counter-radicalization programs but said he has seen no indication they are happening.

He said he had met with a senior federal official to discuss the topic but did not get the impression the government was committed to fighting radicalization. “They have no clue,” he said. “I don’t think they get it.”

Canada added Al-Shabab to its list of banned terrorist groups last year, partly due to concerns over its attempts to recruit Somali-Canadians. Devoted to installing a Taliban-like regime in Somalia, Al-Shabab has targeted government officials, aid workers and journalists and staged suicide bombings in Uganda last year.

“The group is believed to be closely linked with al-Qaeda and recently formally pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network,” reads the group’s profile on the Public Safety Canada website.

A declassified government report on Al-Shabab recruitment methods used in Canada said there were between 150,000 and 200,000 ethnic Somalis in the country, and cited the identity struggle of diaspora youths.

“Whereas Somali parents retreat into their own culture in the face of Western values, Somali teenagers struggling to assimilate often reject adult tradition and authority in the home,” it said. “Such cultural dissonance, according to another study, is rampant in diaspora Somali communities in Toronto and elsewhere, and opens the door to dangerously powerful influence from peers.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s